Confessions of a Rocket Scientist
Monday, November 15, 2004
  Silver Spaceships of the 50's
I'm 52. I am officially old. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that in 52 years I have not died. That's bad? What annoys me is when people ask me how "young" I am, as though I need to be in denial about my many years on this planet. Please do not patronize me. It took me a long time to get this old, and I intend to enjoy it.
One of my fondest memories of youth is the old science fiction movies and television programs. Mine was the first generation to grow up with TV, and I simply loved stuff like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Rocky Jones. I just found a Rocky Jones DVD and was reminiscing about the old time shows with the cheap sets, corny costumes, and hokey ray guns.
But there is one part of these old sci-fi shows I still love, and that is their silver space ships.
Our concept of space travel in the 50's was really naive. We envisioned aerodynamic craft with sweeping fins and silvery metal skin blasting off on a fiery tail and roaring through the stars. The reality of space flight, the utilitarian shape of the Mercury space capsule, the Saturn rockets, the Lunar Lander, and the improbable sideway stack of the Space Shuttle, had just not occured to us. Instead we foresaw a double ogive profile with fins and wings.
Big screen movies fed this image. Films such as When Worlds Collide and Destination Moon reinforced the iconic image of just what a rocketship ought to look like. And Disney's Moonliner decorated the entrance to its famed "Rocket to the Moon" attraction in the late 50's and early 60's.
The reality of space travel, however, is that the silver rockets make no sense. There is no air in space, and a spaceship spends most of its time outside of the Earth's atmosphere. Likewise, there is no real need for fins, which require an atmosphere to do their job of stabilizing the spaceship. Thus, the sleek cigar-shaped aerodynamic spaceships are not very practical. Just look at the Lunar Lander, which had absolutely no aerodynamic qualities at all.
These days, anybody who would try to produce a movie or a TV program that used a silver rocket would be laughed out of town. Movies such as Star Wars and programs like Star Trek and Babylon 5 have created a more sophisticated audience. This was not always the case. One of Gene Roddenberry's biggest battles with the network (besides his battle to keep Star Trek on the air) had to do with the design of the Enterprise. He envisioned something different, a design that was at once futuristic and at the same time reminiscent of the era of wooden ships and iron men. The brass at NBC could not understand his vision. "Come on, Gene, just put some fins on a cigar and you have your space ship. What's the problem?"
I would probably laugh at such a show myself. But I admit to a certain level of nostalgia.
The Silver Spaceships will live on, as long as we have videos and DVD's. And if I can help it, they will fly. The double-ogive shape is not easy to model, but it isn't impossible. So I have decided to make a model based on the Space Ark from When Worlds Collide. And if that turns out well, maybe Rocky Jones' Orbit Jet might fly.
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Location: Quakertown, Pennsylvania, United States

Two time cancer survivor, happily married, LaSalle Alumnus

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